Washington Post Series Examines Destructive Path of Bite Mark Analysis
In the first part of a four-part series to be continued next week, the
writes about the use of bite mark analysis in criminal cases and how this deeply flawed practice has contributed to the wrongful convictions of people in the United States for several decades.
One of the cases featured in the article is that of Innocence Project client Gerard Richardson, who in 1995 was convicted of killing a 19-year-old woman in New Jersey based on evidence bite mark evidence presented by Dr. Ira Titunik. At trial, prosecution insisted that Richardson was the perpetrator because Dr. Titunik testified that Richardson was the sole source of a bite mark found on the victim by medical examiners. Although no physical evidence linked Richardson to the crime scene, Titunik was able to convince the jury that Richardson was guilty. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. It wasn’t until late 2013 that the state of New Jersey admitted that it had put the wrong man in jail after DNA testing of swabs taken of the bite mark excluded Gerard and pointed to another male.
Based on cases like Gerard’s (24 of the people who have been exonerated in the United States were wrongfully convicted or arrested based on bite mark evidence) a 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report discredited bite mark analysis, saying that it had no scientific basis. The Washington Post describes how the circle of critics around bite mark analysis is expanding now, including forensic experts such as Michael Bowers, once a lead practitioner in bite mark forensics, but that those critics speak out at the risk of being persecuted. The
Much of the NAS report’s bite mark section was based on the research of Michael Bowers, a 65-year-old dentist, college professor and deputy medical examiner in Ventura County, Calif. Bowers has seen lots of cases like Richardson’s. He has personally assisted in seven exonerations of people convicted because of bite mark evidence. For about a quarter-century, Bowers has been basically trying to eradicate bite mark matching from the courtroom.
“I’ve watched over and over as these people take the witness stand and give testimony that isn’t just false and misleading, but that has put innocent people in prison,” Bowers says. “It’s such a corruption of justice. But for a long time people just didn’t want to hear about it.”
Bowers fought his battle from within as a member of the ABFO, where he once served on committees and held leadership positions. When that didn’t work, he resigned from the organization and began criticizing it from the outside. That’s when he became a target.
Two months after Gerard Richardson was released from prison, Peter Loomis, then president of the ABFO, filed an ethics complaint with the AAFS. It was the first time the president of the ABFO had ever filed such a complaint. But Loomis’s complaint wasn’t against Ira Titunik, the man whose testimony sealed Richardson’s conviction. Nor was it against any of the bite mark analysts who have contributed to other false arrests or convictions over the years.
Instead, Loomis’s complaint was against Michael Bowers. If successful, the complaint could get Bowers expelled from the AAFS and effectively destroy his credibility as an expert witness. It would remove an important critic from the courtroom.
Despite bite mark analysis being heavily criticized by the NAS as well as scientists and legal experts, it is still used in criminal cases across the country. The Post concludes: “…[E]very time someone has challenged the science of bite mark matching in court since 2009, the court has ruled the other way. In short, the scientific community has declared that bite mark matching isn’t reliable and has no scientific foundation for its underlying premises, and that until and unless further testing indicates otherwise, it shouldn’t be used in the courtroom. And so far, the criminal justice system has said it doesn’t care.”
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